"Be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."
--Groucho Marx
We now turn to another form of unusual occurrence - the hoax. Unlike real scientific errors or self-delusions, a hoax involves deliberate deception. A hoax is intended to fool and deceive. The motivations for hoaxing vary widely; the only way to find out about that is to ask the hoaxer.

Remember that a hoax is an effort to deceive. Some of them will succeed if done well enough. There is no guarantee that a hoax will be exposed before it has accomplished its aim. Also remember that hoaxes can be temporal, meaning that the deception need not last a long time. Some hoaxes are intended to work for a few days or even hours, just long enough to have the desired effect.

History is riddled with classic hoaxes. For those who are interested in finding out more about hoaxes, try The Museum of Hoaxes. Alex Boese's collection of hoax history is worth looking at. His book by the same name is also very worthwhile.

The underlying theme here is that a well-targeted and executed hoax can have very real effects, sometimes causing a lot of damage. You need to be very wary of something unusual, spectacular, or scandalous; always ask "Could this be a hoax?"

Below is a small sampling of hoaxes/deceptions of various types; they will give some idea of the range of historical hoaxes. You are going to see some hoaxes that would have been very difficult or impossible to detect.

Scientific Hoaxes

"Aliens" and UFO Hoaxes

Strange Creature Hoaxes

Joke Hoaxes

Financial Hoaxes

Wartime Hoaxes

Literary Hoaxes

Media-Targeted Hoaxes

Old Hoaxes - or Real?

Fake Document Hoaxes

Here are two hoaxes involving fake documents - the Man Who Never Was and the CBS Killian memos affair from the 2004 election.

Both of these hoaxes succeeded in their deceptions, although they were quite different in structure and execution. How could a skeptical approach work in such cases?

It seems that the German intelligence service was VERY skeptical; they had to be careful lest they be taken in by planted false information. They were quite careful to check everything, even the published British casualty lists, to be sure every detail checked out. In the end everything did check out and they were unable to dent the story of Major Martin, so they accepted the documents as genuine. In this case, the hoax was so skillfully and perfectly executed that even careful analysis did not reveal it. The success of the hoax depended upon that flawless execution.

The CBS memos are another thing. Those documents are not only forgeries, they are lousy forgeries. Typographical analysis quickly showed that the memos were NOT prepared with a 1970s typewriter. The forgery was well-established within a few days of the initial broadcast. Here there is no question that critical analysis by CBS would have revealed the hoax in a few days. That's why this hoax is interesting - it succeeded, seriously damaging and embarrassing CBS News in spite of the low-grade forgery. Here the success of the hoax depended upon the target (CBS News) being sloppy enough that low quality fake documents would get past them.

One could conclude that critical analysis can detect some, but not all, hoaxes. A plot executed as beautifully as Operation Mincemeat will very likely succeed. Remember that a hoax is a deliberate attempt to deceive; if done well enough it can succeed.


What can you do to help avoid being fooled by a hoax? It's hard and there are no guarantees. All you can do is try. Here are some suggestions.

  • Don't be a "True Believer." Such a person is so committed to a story or belief that they will continue to believe even in the face of a growing body evidence that the story/belief is false. This is a good way to get hooked by a good hoax.
  • Maintain a skeptical attitude. Don't accept a story until you are given good reason to do so.
  • Ask "Is this story hot enough to spread on its own?" If it is, could this be its reason for existence?
  • Ask "Are there any details out of place?" Are there any small details out of place or time? Such can be a bad sign.
  • Ask "Who is saying/claiming this?" This can be revealing if you know the affiliations, tendencies, or beliefs of that person.
  • Ask "Is this story coming out in a context where I should expect a hoax?" Consider UFOs. This area has been so riddled with hoaxes that any report of some "alien activity" should be treated with great skepticism.
  • If photographs are used as evidence, see the paragraph on photos that follows.
  • Ask whether the item has appeared at an interesting time. Estimate the effects it might produce. Would a different timing influence those effects? What would be different if the item came out a week later? A week earlier? If it is a hoax and its effect is tied to its timing, ask why this is.
  • Ask: "Do arguments pushing the story contain fallacies?" Be picky. Fallacious reasoning can indicate problems. Be careful if you spot any fallacies. See our extensive list of propaganda tricks.
  • Check out some of the fact-checking sites on the web. Some of these are quite good.
There are no guarantees, but caution will be helpful.

Photographs as Evidence

We got into a discussion of the value of photographs as evidence in such cases. In this world of very capable computer image processing, hoax photos of very high quality can be made. At this point, if someone tells you that some photo has been carefully examined and has passed all tests looking for fraud, all you know is that one of two possibilities is true: the photo is either real or it is a hoax of such quality that normal examination will not reveal it. You do not have enough information to know which one it is.

Someone asked if photos would usable in court as evidence if there was a possibility of faking. The consensus was that it might be OK if the person taking it was recognized by the court as reliable. Someone might research this one.

World Net Daily article - courtesy of Mr. Medrano

More on Hoaxes

Pickover's Encyclopedia of Hoaxes

hoaxes.org - great collection